Monday, December 30, 2013


            There was no room left for doubt in Eitan’s mind. They were inside the house. Rinn, the dog, had yelped once, but then was silent. He’d kill them for that. He’d make them suffer. But even in the state of utter fear that Tall Man felt overtaking him, he knew that he would not stand any chance if he did not leave immediately.
            He was too high up to just jump from the window. He could break a leg, and that would doom him for sure. There was a gun on the top shelf of the closet, but he’d only fired the thing a few times at paper targets.
            There was an audible footstep downstairs. They were moving.
            He tip-toed to the closet and pulled the pistol from its shelf. He nearly forgot to take the box of ammunition with it, but the thought occurred to him before he went to leave the room.
            To get out, he would have to descend the stairs, and he was almost certain that they were already walking up them. So Eitan took a breath and stepped into the upstairs corridor, slipping into the bathroom.
            He could not hear any reaction to his movement. They had not heard him. Thankfully, the house was built of solid concrete, and the floors were just carpet over the solid surface. Hardwood floors might have creaked.
            He had anticipated this move. Maryam and Karis had already left town. He only hoped that the people who had come to kill him would dismiss his hosts as unrelated to the conflict – not worth the effort.
            Why the hell am I worth the effort? Tall Man thought to himself. Well, maybe he hadn’t been, but as soon as Mr. Flow brought him into the loop, he’d become a target. The old djinni was supposed to be on his way to pick him up, but Tall Man could not be sure he would make it – or even that Flow was still alive.
            They would be checking all the doors. He would not simply be able to wait them out. This thought occurred to him too late from him to see if jumping from the bathroom’s window would be safe enough.
            The solidity of the floor now became a liability, as he had a hard time hearing the killers as they made their way up the corridor. Still, they were close, and the moment came.
            He slammed the door outward, knocking a woman hard into the opposite wall. She fell to the ground, dropping her gun. Tall Man gave her a solid kick to the stomach and then came around.
            He had barely gotten clear of the door when a short man punched him hard in the stomach. The man punched him again, and then a third time, and Tall Man stumbled back.
            The gun fired, and the man who had punched him dropped to the ground. It took a moment for Tall Man to realize he had even aimed and pulled the trigger.
            He ran down the stairs, stumbling, and he missed the last two stairs, falling to his knees painfully when he reached the brown tile floor. He quickly got himself up and ran past poor Rinn’s body.
            Someone fired a gun and the little shrine-statue in the front hall exploded in a hail of splinters. Tall Man kept his head down and ran for the front door. It was already open. He came out into the chilly night.
            There were three men there, all in dark masks, all with guns. They looked about as surprised to see him as he was to see them. The surprise gave way, and Tall Man ducked to the side as they opened up.
            But the gunfire was very short-lived. Tall Man heard the squeal of tires and a loud thump, followed by a pair of short cracks.
            “Get in!” Tall Man heard a familiar voice say. He blinked hard and then ran toward the car.
            Mr. Flow was at the wheel, and another man who was called Iron String leaned out of the back seat with a shotgun. The assailants were all down in the street.
            Tall Man rushed around the back of the car and climbed in the passenger seat.
            “He’s in! He’s in! Go!” yelled Iron String.
            Mr. Flow slammed his foot down and the car lurched forward.
            “Tom, get back in the car before…” but Mr. Flow was cut off by the sound of shattering glass. The rear windshield exploded and Tall Man’s side mirror was suddenly obscured by blood. The car rocked as Iron String’s body fell out the window.
            “Fuck!” cried Mr. Flow.
            A block away, things were suddenly quiet and almost calm. Tall Man could hear the whistling of the wind through the broken windshield.
            He looked over at Mr. Flow. There were two circles of light in his arm and shoulder that were glowing orange, like a burning log. “Flow, you were hit.”
            “I know.” Mr. Flow bit back a wince of pain. “Eitan, you’re not looking so good yourself.”
            It was true; he was covered with blood. When Iron String got hit, it had sprayed all over him. Tall Man sighed, feeling extremely tired.  His stomach still hurt considerably from being punched. He held his hand over it.
            And when he pulled his hand away, it was covered with hot, wet blood.

            “Oh shit,” said Eitan, his head spinning. “I think I got stabbed.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Beautiful Harmony

            The forest was a set of shapes to him – shapes that changed gradually, but he took note of all that he saw. In life, he might have thought of the forest as a static thing. It had been many years, many lifetimes before his unhindered mind emerged and he was able to glimpse the undulating, writhing mass that was the forest.
            To him. To him.
            Every second of every day, every moment of every year for countless years, the same words drummed within his mind.
            To him. To him.
            And that was Stalav’s purpose now, as it had ever been. He would serve his master even when he could no longer hear the lord’s commands. The drumbeat remained, but its beautiful harmony – the master’s voice – had vanished.
            For long ages, Stalav’s mind had resonated with the calming words of the master. “You are of me,” he would say. “We are one.”
            When the faceless man took had taken hold of his arm, Stalav could no longer hear the master. He heard only one thing – a refrain that threatened to drown out even the drumbeat.
            We are one in the machine. We are one in the machine.
            No voice chanted these foul words – the words existed only in concept and theory, and even those were faded and dim.
            The arm that had been his even when he walked the world a living man was no more. It had been consumed entirely.
            “The flesh is weak,” he remembered the Icelord had said. “And blood will abandon you in time.” Stalav cut the arm, flesh, blood and bone.
            His foot connected softly with the ground as he heard one of the women speak. Her voice was light and feminine, yet there was a pain underneath it, and a roughness that seemed to contradict what he had observed of her nature.
            She had been raised, of that he was certain, though someone had gone through great care to preserve her. She was not of his master’s children.
            The other was deadly and strong. Hers was a lower voice, both in pitch and volume. She barely left tracks, but the stench of life was strong from her. He had met many of her kind in his days. Stalav himself had not been dissimilar in life.
            His people were long gone, the tribesmen who lived in the southern mountains. The Icelord had been less concerned with conservation in those days.
            The rough one would fall eventually – this did not concern him. It was the other – the dead one – that gave him pause.
            She did not seem physically dangerous. No, it was the implication of her. She might obstruct him in his plan. He would have to warn the others, but he could never come within five miles of Port O’James without being destroyed on sight.
            The first wave of exiles had made a mess of it for the rest of them, panicking and killing the crews of those ships, only to be destroyed themselves. All that they had accomplished was to warn the living, to put them on their guard.
            Stalav had been afforded his own intelligence. In fact, he had learned quite a lot since his death. He could fight, he could track, and he could keep hidden. He had served in the Icelord’s legion, and he had brought thousands of his brethren to be raised and join in the Icelord’s dominion.
            Memories of glory. Of victories and success. But the memories were fading. Ever since the faceless man touched his arm, he could feel details slipping away. Even now, with the non-arm severed and discarded, the memories had not returned.
            We are one in the machine. The chorus continued, as if broadcast via radio across the entire forest.
            At their current pace, they would reach the town in two days. He would have to decide what to do quickly. He had tracked them ever since they found his arm. They were fleeing the faceless men just as he was. Their efforts against them could prove valuable, but he could not imagine a scenario that would lead to an alliance.
            The rough one would try to kill him on sight. It was not unthinkable that she could succeed, so he would have to catch them unaware if that was how he wished to proceed. The other one…
            His hearing cut out again, replaced by a dull whining sound. He stood there for a moment, waiting for it to return.
            Yes, the other one was an unknown factor. It would be safer to butcher them in their sleep. Start with the rough woman and then move on to the dead one. The inhabitants of the town would merely think they were lost to the woods.
            Or perhaps he would be better off merely leaving them, letting them go. They had seen the arm, but they did not seem to know what to make of it. They could not have gleaned his intentions from his malformed arm alone.

            Ana took the first watch. Lisenrush only slept for three hours at a time, so it was not too bad. They stayed very close to the fire. The deerskin cloaks served as their bedding. Ana kept her back to the flames. While having the heat radiate onto her face would be more than welcome, she had an easier time seeing into the woods.
            Animals would probably be frightened away by the fire, but it wasn’t the animals that she was afraid of. There had been no sign of the faceless men since they had escaped Far Watch. Had they managed to evade them? Was that even possible?
            She wore the cloak over the front of her, exposing her back to the fire. She felt raw. She had not showered since the day she was shot. Or had she even done so that morning? It could only have been a matter of days – two weeks, at most – but time seemed to have elongated.
            The heat was isolated to only one surface of her body, but it called to mind basking in the sun on a tropical beach. She could almost picture herself out there on the sand, perhaps a nice cool drink, with lazy palm trees hanging over her. People splashing in the water…
            Her eyes closed and her chin began to drop.
            The awareness of the cold forest around her remained, but it seemed to be pushed into the background.
            Not doing very well at the watch, now, are you?
            The beach was bright and sunny, but the shade in which Ana was lying kept things remarkably cool. She could feel goosebumps on her arms.
            The man sitting next to her adjusted his glasses and touched her lightly on the arm.
            “It’s all right, Ana. You’re doing very well. You’ve been so brave.”
            She turned to him. He was short, with messy brown tufts on either side of his head above the ears, and rosy red cheeks.
            “I’m trying to keep guard.”
            “Well, she’ll be up in a few minutes anyway. I need to talk to you briefly.”
            The man stood up and walked over to her. Even standing, he was only barely taller than she was when seated in her beach chair.
            “Do you remember me, Ana?”
            Ana looked into his small, brown eyes. “I’ve seen you before. Not here.”
            “Yes, Ana.”
            The fact that his eyes looked so small even with the magnifying effect of his glasses did not seem to make sense. She thought they should look bigger.
            “This is a dream, then,” said Ana.
            “Yes, for the most part.”
            She shrugged. She realized she would be in trouble with Lisenrush for falling asleep while on watch duty, but she figured she would deal with that when she woke up.
            “Ana, I’m Doctor Meldi. You remember me?”
            “You started seeing me after your brother drowned.”
            “I remember that.”
            “All right, Ana. I need you to listen to me. It is important that you get back to Port O’James safely. Your fellow citizens are operating under a false premise. You have to make sure that Lisenrush gets there with you, or the people won’t believe a word you say.”
            “Yes, I think I had thought of that.”
            “Well, there’s a hitch.”
            “What is it?”
            “There is a draugr following you.”
            Suddenly, the beach was gone, and the forest was back, the trees illuminated by the orange flame and the dark shadows receding back into the distance, and…
            “Lydia,” said Ana. “Lydia, get up.”
            The Ranger-Captain was on her feet faster than Ana could have imagined. “What is it?” she said, the rifle already in her hands.
            “I…” Ana scanned the forest. It was utterly still and silent. The pops and crackles of the fire were the only thing she could hear. The forest stretched out into the distance, still and unchanging.
            But for a split second, just as she had woken up, she could have sworn that in that deep black darkness, she had seen a pair of pale blue eyes staring back at her.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Blackroot and Damned Rain

            Barclay took a drag on the blackroot cigarette. The musky odor of the smoke surrounded him as he watched the rain pour down from the awning. It had been raining since the previous morning, and indeed, Barclay had heard that it was raining just about everywhere. He had not received a briefing on it, though, so he filed the information away. Montaso and Kern were out on assignment, so it was just Barclay, Darron, and the Nascine woman.
            His glasses were beginning to fog, so he took them off. He could see decently without them, but they had long ago become a part of his look, and he understood how important appearances could be.
            Darron was growing restless. It had been an error to send Kern out instead of him – frankly, he thought Darron might be better suited to what Kern was doing, and vice versa. Still, Barclay would keep things in line, as he always had. His primary concern was about Nascine.
            Emily Nascine was an accomplished thief, but not a very good intelligence officer. The operation in Omlos proved that. Barclay had not actually heard about Omlos on his end – it was only in preparation for the Nascine operation that he found out.
            He had taken to smoking blackroot to deal with his stomach problems. A man named Fipps who lived in Gensdon swore by it. He was Stag’s Head, which made Barclay a little skeptical, but the blackroot smoke did help with the churning in his stomach.
            The cabin was new. The wood had not been painted, but it was treated with chemicals to keep the rot away. The rain was pretty heavy, and there was a muddy river forming somewhere from the top of the hill and flowing down a little too close for comfort.
            If anything, the rain might make it hard to burn down the cabin when they were ready to move on.
            Ten miles north was the shared space with Retrein. There was a little concrete bunker – something dating back to the Brothers’ War, supposedly – that had the space in the basement. When Nascine was ready, they would send her back through there.
            Barclay took out another cigarette and lit it before tossing the first one into a puddle. The smoke had a pungent, fungal smell. It was not particularly pleasant, but he could feel his nausea settling.
            He preferred the quick assignments. Being on the job for too long made him feel uneasy. It was always best to get it over with in a couple hours. Two days was acceptable. He would never let it show, but when it got longer than that, he started to feel uneasy.
            He had a wife and kids, though they knew him by a different name. Neither that one nor Barclay were his original name, but he’d burned that whole past down long ago.
            Barclay kept four separate identities as a matter of course. There was Barclay, the House Agent, Matterly, the family man, Schmidt, a loner who possessed what he thought of as the “transitional” properties that he would use to transform between the first two identities, and finally there was Spindler. Spindler he had never touched, but he kept up appearances – a bank account, a passport, an address -  as best he could. Spindler was the contingency plan. If something ever went wrong, he would drop everything, go be Schmidt for a day, and then be Spindler for the rest of his life.
            His hope was that the House didn’t know about Spindler, but he could not be sure. One superior, long ago, had joked that “the House always wins,” and Barclay took that as a caveat to any plans he might have made. Still, on the off chance he needed it, and on the off chance it worked, he would be happy that he had put in the effort.
            A particular cough that he had rehearsed with Darron let him know that Nascine was awake. Barclay tossed the cigarette away and went indoors.
            Nascine was pacing, wearing the sweatpants and sweatshirt they’d gotten for her. The dark circles around her eyes gave her a strangely glamorous look, despite the dourness of the setting. He had thought it was make-up at first.
            “When are you guys going to release me?”
            “You’re not a prisoner here, Emily.”
            “But you don’t want me to leave.”
            “We want you to be safe. This can’t happen again.”
            Nascine laughed. “Agreed.”
            “We can’t tip our hand to the Opponents. If they knew that we were the ones who had rescued you, well… it would complicate matters.” Barclay walked over and put a hand on Darron’s shoulder. “Darron here will help you build a story.”
            Darron took his cue and stood up from his chair. “We have some of our own people at a hospital in Knightsgate. They’ll release you from the hospital, claiming that some passers-by called an ambulance for you after pulling you out of the Lockey. If the Opponents, or the Rookery, for that matter, try to check in, they’ll find that there was shoddy record-keeping that day.”
            Nascine stopped pacing. “You want me to lie to the Rookery?”
            “Not lie. We want you to omit a few details. For your protection as well as ours,” said Barclay. “We agree that there is likely an Opponent Agent or Agents within the Rookery. We do not wish to alert them to our presence, you understand.”
            Nascine nodded. Again, as Barclay had surmised, the subtleties of spycraft were not her forte. Given her physique and background, he imagined she would be the ideal person to send on a jewel heist, but the cloak and dagger stuff, not so much. Still, she seemed capable of learning.
            “How do I get back there?” asked Nascine. “And where am I, for that matter?”
            “We’re at an isolated location in Western Narcia.”
            “Yes, Darron will explain how on the way back.”
            “And when will that be?”
            “Can you walk all right?” asked Barclay.
            Nascine looked down at her feet. She flexed them, lifting one leg and then the other. “I think so.”
            “Then you can go whenever you like.”
            Nascine raised her eyebrows. “Just like that?”
            “Just like that,” said Barclay.
            Nascine opened her mouth to speak, but stopped herself.
            “What is it?”
            “I only expected you to want something in return.”
            Barclay shook his head dismissively. “You were drowning, we were watching. We weren’t just going to let you die.”
            Nascine nodded slowly. “Well, thank you. For that. And keeping me safe.”
            “My pleasure,” said Barclay, and gave a polite little nod.
            They waited an hour for the rain to stop, but it was relentless. Eventually, Nascine decided that she was willing to brave the storm, and she and Darron embarked on their journey to the shared space.
            Barclay sat in the cabin alone for a time after that, lighting another Blackroot cigarette.
            The orders had been fulfilled. Nascine was going back to Ravenfort, alive and well. Certainly the Rookery would have its eyes on her, but it was his hope that the Opponents might as well.
            They had had some success in Arizradna, though Barclay was hesitant to declare victory just yet. After all, there were other events going on in Retrein that he could hardly guess at. The situation down south involving the Bone King and the Vastani had not turned out so well, but there were other projects in the works.
            Still, it would not do to think about it all too much. Barclay was down a few rungs of the ladder. He operated out in the field, and preferred to leave the long-term planning to others. But these recent years had been exciting. Finally, there was one great goal that the House was moving toward. Naturally, there would be resistance among those who preferred the status quo, but that sort of agent was an endangered species. For now, Barclay was happy to do his part to purge them from Retrein. And with Nascine released back into that environment, he expected many would drop their guard, and both the House and the Rookery would have one fewer threat to deal with.
            It was totally dark outside by the time that Kern got back. The cabin was illuminated only by an electric lantern.
            Kern looked positively haunted. His skin had gone pale, and the light from the lantern seemed to be too much for him.
            “Nascine is gone. Darron took her there.”
            “I saw…” began Kern. “What was that thing?”
            “Don’t worry about it. It won’t harm you. What did you think of the coffee?”
            Kern shook his head. “Disgusting. Literally painful to drink.” He shivered a little. “And my stomach has been acting up ever since.”
            Barclay pulled out his cigarette pack and shook one out. “Try this. It helps settle it.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)            

Monday, October 14, 2013


            Wolfsmouth was a far more modern city than Ravenfort. The war generally known as the Sardok Invasion was usually remembered for the events in Hesaia and Narcia, but Retrein had not been without its scars. The Ashmarius, the Sardok Navy, had blockaded Wolfsmouth for nearly a year, bombarding it and killing thousands. Most of the old historical buildings had been pulverized, and while that was nearly four hundred years in the past, the mentality that had spread through the city was that nothing would last forever, so they may as well favor the new.
            Frankly, Richard hated it. There was no character, only tall concrete monstrosities. The best they could come up with as a “historical” building was the Rearadin Lighthouse, which was rebuilt after the blockade was broken.
            He was in the Law Offices of Kieran, Watts, and Elistion, another one of these arrogant skyscrapers. Watts had been dodging his calls. Perhaps the man had somehow convinced himself that Richard AIrbright was not worth his time. After all, Quentin Watts was from a family as old and aristocratic as the Airbrights, but without the taint of one particularly infamous ancestor.
            Watts had been among them, back at the Academy, but he had chosen to pursue the far more practical career of a solicitor, and given his family connections, it was not exactly difficult to parlay this into a position in a prestigious law firm that would go out of their way to add his name to theirs.
            And so, Richard found himself riding the lift up to the top floor of one of those hideous sky scrapers, suffering from boredom as he listened to the canned music that some idiot had decided might detract from the tedium of sitting in a metal box for several minutes. The lift was on the outer edge of the building, and was thus fitted with a large window that looked out over the city-sized shrine to modernity as rain pattered down the window and ran in wind-driven rivulets.
            Whispering Jim stood next to him. The demon had been taking a more human-like form lately, something that Richard found curious. He was still utterly smoke-like, but it looked as if he might fill the space that a man would.
            “There is a lot of greed in this building. It’s like a residue, you know. Greed is… well, honestly it’s the most boring motive. I would often avoid the greedy just on principle. No finesse required, and the greedy are already looking to make a deal. No sport there.”
            Richard did not dignify the demon with a response.
            “The exception was the people who did not realize their own greed. There was this one woman, a real piece of work. She would only ask for favors for other people. Very noble, yes? Except she would always hope that her superior co-worker would quit to pursue some passion project, so that she would get their promotion. It was that sort of thing. It was not long before I had her committing murders and cover-ups.”
            Jim looked over to Richard for a reaction.
            “Well, fine. What do you do for fun?”
            The elevator door opened, and Richard stepped out. He walked forward to the receptionist’s desk, but there was no one there. Richard adjusted his glasses so they would sit more comfortably on his nose and then began to make his way down the corridor to the left, when he realized that Jim was not following.
            “What is it?”
            Jim wafted forward, hovering over the desk and pointing downward. Richard looked over and saw the secretary.
            He was a young man, perhaps in his mid twenties. He had been shot twice in the head.
            “How many are there?” asked Richard, as he pulled his sleeve back, revealing a metal spell-amplifier that was fastened to his wrist.
            “I don’t know, but the greed has been replaced with… something else.”
            Richard nodded. There was no one here that was meant to be here and still alive. “Be on alert, Jim.” But when he looked at the demon, he could see a ghastly smile crossing his face. “What are you smiling at?”
            “A little relief to the tedium.”
            Richard walked down the corridor slowly, methodically. It was fairly quiet, but he could hear some sort of aerosol puffing. They came to a corner office – this seemed to be Eliston’s.
            Richard kicked the door open. Eliston was laid out on his desk. Someone had done something to his body that Richard did not care to speculate on, but it seemed bloated and discoloured.
            “HAIL TO THE KING,” was spray-painted in white across the window that looked out over the city.
            Richard could hear more of those aerosol puffs from another room. He stepped back in the corridor. The device on his wrist was fully powered up, but his heart was beating hard enough that he doubted he would need the amplification it provided.
            He came to the next office, this one Watts’.
            The figure with the spray-paint was small and feminine. She was dressed in all black, with a mask that obscured her face. She was only through “HAIL TO TH…” when she turned to face him.
            “I advise you to…” began Richard, but he was interrupted when she picked up the pistol beside her.
            Richard ducked out of the room as splinters from the door sprayed outward.
            Deep breath. He took it, and then:
            “Tine oíche!” A deep purple spout of flame erupted from his hand, spraying like a fire-hose at his target. The flames enveloped the gunwoman, and soon she was on the ground, a smoking wreck of a human being.
            The sound had aroused the others, and two of them spilled out into the corridor. With a gesture, Richard mouthed the words “držet tohle” and a light blue circle of glimmering metal formed around one of the attackers’ necks, lifting him off his feet.
            By this point, the other, who was taller and thinner, had lunged, and tackled Richard to the ground. The man was terribly strong, and probably half Richard’s age. His fist connected with Richard’s jaw, and he could feel his whole head shudder with the impact.
            “Yes, master,” said the demon as he stood above the two of them. Though his face was only a swirl of smoke, Richard still felt he had a stupid, lazy expression.
            “Be unleashed.”
            This was all he needed to say. Black smoke swarmed around the attacker, lifting him off of Richard and swirling deep into his lungs. The smoke then shot out of the man’s every orifice, like steam from a kettle, and the man then collapsed to the floor.
            “Thank you, Jim,” said Richard, as he stood himself up. That was right before a bullet passed through Jim and rang as it skipped off a now-broken light fixture.
            Richard hit the ground once again, this time on his own volition. The bullets sprayed down the hallway again, from what he guessed was some sort of submachine gun, but he responded with another jet of flame.
            “That about did it!” said Jim, a giddy excitement in his voice, yet as he had spoken, his voice had deepened to an inhuman baritone.
            Richard did not have time to disapprove of the demon’s attitude. He had not been in a situation like this for many years – no preparation, no time to be clever. If he was forced to fight and kill any more of them, he would stick to his most tried and practiced spells, which to him were as simple as pulling the trigger on a gun.
            Jim was already chasing down the remaining members of the death squad, and Richard could hear some very disturbing sounds punctuated by all-too-human screams as the demon cleared out what he assumed was probably Kieran’s office.
            When the sounds had died down, Richard carefully got to his feet. He made his way into the third office, careful not to look to closely at the scattered remains of the… five professional killers who clearly had never faced a full-fledged demon before.
            Jim had grown enormous, yard-long horns extending from his shadowy head and a pair of great wings coming out of his back.
            Ah yes, this is the Nar’shastakala’xin that I had read about. The demon had proven its worth, albeit in a most disturbing manner. Richard felt a pang of sympathy for the poor forensics team that would have to sort through the mess.
            The demon turned to face him, and growled with the sound of tectonic plates grinding together. And then Jim softened, and shrank, and then he was the size of a man again.
            “Have I pleased my master?” asked Jim. There was something terribly off-putting about the almost childlike tone that he took.
            “We have someone to question.”
            Richard took care not to step on the burning corpse of the man with the submachine gun. They approached the one living member of the team, who had grabbed onto the floating metal ring to keep himself from suffocating.
            Richard ripped the mask off his head. He was a bulky man, perhaps in his thirties, with dark, sweat-soaked hair.
            “Why kill Watts? What did it matter?”
            The man grunted. “We… don’t kill me…”
            “I see very little reason to do that,” said Richard. Indeed, he did not, because the man had already been shot several times by his overzealous comrade with the submachine gun, who was now smoldering with purple flames. “Why Watts? Why here?”
            “It was a job,” said the man. “I was following my orders.”
            Richard conjured a spark of “nightfire” in his hand and held it close to the man’s face. “That was never an excuse.”
            “I didn’t know who they were. We just went in and did the mission.”
            Richard narrowed his eyes. “Mission?” And then he noticed the REA badge the man had embroidered on his body armor. “You’re an enforcer.”
            The man did what must have been his best attempt at a head-nod while suspended by a metal ring floating in the air.
            “Well, doubly damned, then,” said Richard. “Besides, their names are on the bloody building.” The man was going white. He would not have much time. “Tell me, what did he give you?’
            “Money, it was money,” said the man.
            “Completely worth it, wouldn’t you agree?” asked Richard. “The spray-paint. Did he have you write anything other than the propaganda?”
            The man looked vaguely confused.
            “All hail the king, and that nonsense? Was there anything else he told you to paint?”
            Less confusion, more pain now. The man was fading fast.
            “Henry Thall.” He stepped around to face him, putting his hands on the man’s shoulders. “The man who paid you to do this. What else did he tell you? Did he have you paint anything other than ‘Hail to the King?’”
            “Richard, he’s dead.”
            “Damn!” yelled Richard, and he released the ring with a gesture, and the man’s body fell in an awkward pile.

            There would be a lot of interviews to go through, and the REA in particular was going to press hard to find some fault in Richard’s actions, but thankfully the Royal Arcane Society still pulled a decent amount of weight, and given Richard’s position in one of Retrein’s most important families, it was generally agreed that his involvement in the incident would be kept on a need-to-know basis.
            More than anything, Richard was frustrated. The inscriptions on and around the other bodies were meaningful – Henry was trying to do something. But what that was, Richard could still not guess.
            And this, well, this was just wanton killing. Watts was no arcanist – he was a lawyer. Certainly, he had been there when it happened the first time, but he was hardly a key player.
            The train ride back was quiet. Jim had contracted himself. It was unusual for the demon to be so small and unobtrusive. He hardly said three words the entire trip.
            Isabelle was not home – at a friend’s, Richard believed. He had covered her head-to-toe in the best protective wards he could come up with, but he still worried. After all, it had occurred to him that Watts was meant for him. Henry was a clever beast, but he also recognized that Richard was clever as well. Henry knew that the best way to hide one's intentions was to make the occasional irrational move.
            And given what he had turned into, Richard would not put it past him to sacrifice a dozen people merely to add to the confusion.
            It all came down to the most frustrating question: What was Henry Thall attempting to achieve?
            Richard took off his hat and put it on the stand and then walked into the living room.
            “Mr. Airbright, so good to meet you,” said a female voice.
            Sitting in Richard’s favorite chair was a beautiful young woman in a graphite-grey business suit. Richard froze.
            “You may call me Sweet Clara,” said the woman. “I am here representing Henry Thall.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)

Friday, September 27, 2013

It's a Hell of a Town

            Jack arose from the hard pavement. As the rain coated the sidewalks, the glow of the streetlights was reflected upward, as if from a mirror.
            The streets were empty except for the ghostly whispers caught on the wind. The city sprawled outward and upward. A thousand towers, gleaming with light, the streets lit bright as day. Above, the stars were invisible – the light of the city drowning out that celestial glow.
            Jack Milton could hardly breathe. The air was choked with smoke from all the passing cars. Fog poured out of the sewer grates, but the rain washed it out of the air.
            You see it, don’t you?
            It wasn’t his own voice. It took him a moment to realize that it had to be June’s. It was the blonde woman he had seen in the Lower Block. It was the goddess.
            See what?
            It’s there.
            Milton felt a tug, as if she had pulled at him. He looked down at his chest. A large metal loop came out of him, linking him to a thick chain.
            Follow it, if you’re ready.
            He followed it.
            The chain led him down a street called Fulton. He passed businesses and alleyways, but he still did not see any people. The impression of cars passed by him like solid shadows, choking out their death-smoke as they went.
            He walked for a mile at least. The chain remained taut. As he rounded a corner, he was nearly blinded. Tessa’s room was in the middle of the street, the Sarona Desert starlight and the glow of the Path of Aeoes coming in through the windows. The shadow-cars passed through the room as if they were nothing but the smoke that they exhaled.
            There she is, Jack.
            Tessa was lying on the bed. Milton’s chain linked to her. A similar metal loop came out of her back, and Milton’s chain connected to her there.
            “Tessa,” he said. He put his hand on her shoulder, and Tessa rolled back. There was a gaping wound in her neck where someone had shot her. Milton had seen this before in his work as a cop. He studied it clinically.
            Is this her? Is this what happens?
            Milton could not be sure if he had been the one to say this or if it was June. He felt frozen, unable to scream. His entire body felt like it was coursing with fire, but the dream-logic kept him from calling out or beating his chest or tearing his hair.
            Don’t… don’t take her, please.
            I didn’t take anyone, Jack.
            He walked onward. He followed the chain on a twisting route through streets both narrow and broad. He came to a place with water. A large building said “Staten Island Ferry,” and that was where he found the next link in the chain.
            He was dark-skinned, maybe Native American, or maybe Arab.
            American? Arab? Where do I know those words from? Yet they came to Milton’s mind automatically when he looked at the man.
            The man was very tall. He had been stabbed. There were multiple wounds in the lower abdomen.
            Some things will come to pass. Some things have already. Some things may never be.
            He walked on, the sky darkening as night fell. The rain came down heavily now. Milton looked up at the sky.
            A thousand thousand chains wove their way through the clouds. He could not see where they led. He only had the chain attached to his chest to guide him.
            He passed person after person, following the chain from one to the next.
            There are so many of them. And yet, it wants you.
            The chain took Milton through a massive arch on the northern side of a large square.
            What is it about you? Surely you’ve guessed. He went through a lot of trouble to acquire you.
            I don’t know. Why do they want me?
            You walk through this city as if you know it. Yet you haven’t been here.
            No. I haven’t.
            But you know it. It’s your city.
            Milton seized up, his head suddenly subjected to a drilling, intense pain. He fell to his knees.
            “Whoa, man, are you…?”
            The voice faded away before it could finish the question. The chain was there, and now it pulled at him again.
            The shadow-cars passed by with greater frequency. Sometimes, he could hear a high-pitched whine as they flew by him.
            And then, there was a great forest in the middle of the city. Wide paths cut across the woods, and the smoke was not so bad there. The rain pounded down. There were old people on the chain now. One was an elderly woman, her flesh barely hanging on her bones. She seemed to see him as he walked past.
            And now there were strange shapes, trees and pillars of smokeless fire and dogs and great mounds of stone. The chain led him through them. He walked on, the incline before him making it more difficult, but the chain was pulling hard now. He could barely keep his pace up.
            And then he came to a gallows. In the blinding light of a streetlamp, he saw the next man in the chain. He was hanging from his neck, his eyes bugged out, his handsomeness made ugly by death. Dark ashes rained down on him instead of water. The hangman was there too, and the judge. Both were covered with ashes, dead on the ground. The chain did not link to them. It was as if he was looking at a three-dimensional photograph that they merely happened to be in with the main subject.
            The hanged man looked down at Milton.
            “I must confess, Prisoner, that I had my doubts. But you have exceeded my greatest hopes.” The Diplomat smiled, and as he did, Milton could see that he had been dead for a long, long time. His hair was barely held on by a mummified scalp. His lips had shrunken back, giving him a ghoulish grin.
            “Why does my head hurt?”
            “Because, Prisoner, that was not really coffee.”
            Another bolt of pain, shooting into his right temple.
            “I found you. Now what?” asked Milton.
            “I was hoping you would tell me. I’ve never been to this town.”
            Milton could see a thousand chains coming from every direction. They all came to a center at the Diplomat’s chest.
            “Maybe we could go to a museum,” said the Diplomat, his dried skin cracking as he moved his mouth. “I’ve heard that there are some very nice ones not too far from here, and I must confess that I have an absolute obsession with the finer parts of culture.”
            You don’t have to listen to him, you know? The Diplomat did not seem to hear her.
            I didn’t know. I thought he had brought me here.
            It wants to touch this city. It wants to touch this world. And he wants you to be its fingers.
            “Prisoner, are you there? Cut me down and we’ll paint the town red! What do you say, two Agents of the House versus all the bars in the city that never sleeps? I like those odds.”
            “I…” and then Milton looked up. There was another chain. It began in the loop in the Diplomat’s back and curled its way up around his noose, up the rope and up into the sky. Milton could not see where it led as it faded into the clouds.
            “No thank you,” said Milton.
            “Good luck, then. I mean that.” The Diplomat’s expression seemed sincere. Milton turned and walked away.
            Where are you, June?
            I’m elsewhere. But Jack?
            I’m not June. Even the voice was wrong. It was a man’s voice, a light tenor, with a guttural elongation to certain vowels. How had he heard it as June before?
            A blast, like a sonic boom, shuddered through Milton and he dropped to his knees.
            The taste came back up through his throat, a choking and rancid smell. He vomited there on the pavement, the black liquid spewing forward. His entire being seemed dedicated to expelling it.
            The coffee came out hot, steaming as it spread out over the pavement. Yet as it did, the rain simply washed it away.
            It can’t be coffee here. It can’t be anything special here. It’s just bitter, dirty water. Nothing more. This occurred to him with such clarity that it was as if he was hearing a recording of his own voice. This is a special place.
            He felt as if every vein and artery was being flushed with icy water, and with one final heave, he felt the last of the coffee leave his system.
            Milton rolled onto his back, his entire body aching and shaking. He moaned, unable to settle into a stable state, his heart pounding. Yet despite the pain and trauma, he felt like a bolt of lightning had shot through his body. There was a coolness and an airiness that flowed through him.
            “Hey man,” came a voice. It was an older man, black and with grey hair. He was wearing thick cotton pants and a plastic raincoat, his left hand shielding a lit cigarette held in the right from the wind and the rain. “You ok?”
            “I’m fine,” Milton said, his voice shaking. He had to try not to laugh. He felt good. It was hard to explain, but even the dirt and the rain were pleasures to him. He felt waves of contented happiness wash over him. He wanted to tell Tessa. “I’ll be ok, I just…”
            He looked around him. The park was real. The people were real. The chain in his chest was gone. The gallows were gone. The sky had only clouds and rain.
            “What the fuck…?” said Milton, but even his confusion seemed more amusing than off-putting.
            “You had a pretty crazy night, huh?” said the man with the cigarette. “I don’t know what you were drinking, but I can smell it from here. Smells like motor oil, man.”
            “Sorry, what?” Milton looked around the forest. It was a park. Of course, it was a park. An enormous park in the middle of a big city. It wasn’t familiar. He didn’t recognize it, and yet… he felt as if he could come up with the name if he really thought about it.
            “It’s Sunday morning. Seven o’clock. Something tells me you aren’t here for your morning run. Guess we can’t all be that healthy,” said the man. He chuckled and gestured to his cigarette.
            “Where the hell am I?”
            The man stopped smiling. “Uh… Central Park?”
            Milton nodded. “Right.”

            And then there was a blink. Milton was pretty sure he had blinked his eyes. In that moment, he had wanted nothing more than to realize that he was still dreaming, sleeping next to Tessa in her bed that was too narrow for two people.
            And it would seem that the universe was willing to accept his wishes, though its execution was a little sloppy.
            “Muh?” Tessa vocalized, and then nearly rolled out of bed when she saw him, yelping as she did.
            She was sitting up in bed next to him. He was standing on the bed, fully clothed. Jack jumped off the bed, landing hard on the floor. His legs screamed in pain, and his teeth had clapped together with jolting force.
            “I don’t know, Tessa. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t… I don’t know.”
            “You scared the hell out of me,” said Tessa, her voice cracking on the word “hell.”
            “Tessa, you’re all right?”
            “Yes, Jack, I’m fine. What about you?”
            “I’ve just had a very strange dream.”
            Jack blinked slowly. His eyes felt leaden. Tessa stepped out of the bed, still in her oversized t-shirt and pajama pants, and she stumbled slightly as she did. She put her hands on his shoulders, stabilizing herself. He looked down into her big, round eyes. He remembered how he had seen her in the rainy city, the horrible wound, those eyes devoid of life.
            Jack pulled her to him and held her tightly. They stood there for a few seconds, silent.
            “Jack, you’re cold.”
            “I’m sorry.” He couldn’t manage to let go of her.
            “It’s all right,” said Tessa, a resigned sigh in her voice. “What happened, Jack?”
            Jack contemplated the question. He had been sure it was a dream, up until he met the man in Central Park. But that man was real. That man had smelled the coffee as Jack purged it from his body.
            “I went for a walk.”
            “A place called New York.”
            He told her about the city, and the shadow-cars and the man with the cigarette that smelled like no cigarette he had ever known. He did not tell her about the images he saw of the agents of the House, nor his conversation with the Diplomat, or the man who he had somehow thought was June. Tessa did not seem to understand. Jack could barely understand it himself, but he knew that that dream-place was real. He had been there, and he had known it, intrinsically.
            He was still hugging Tessa very closely. “Tessa, I’m sorry I woke you up.”
            “Don’t worry about it,” she said. Jack checked the clock. It was nearly four in the morning.
            When he released her, he was surprised that Tessa seemed hesitant to pull away. Perhaps she was just exhausted and falling asleep in his arms.
            Tessa eventually stepped back, and with a small yawn, looked up at him and smiled. “You were probably sleep-walking.”
            Absolutely not, thought Jack, but it seemed like the easiest explanation for now. “I guess I must have,” said Jack, and Tessa turned around and went back to the bed.
            And there, protruding from her back, was the faint ghost of a chain. It was neither real nor illusion – a faint image of a chain that Jack seemed to be looking at with his mind rather than his eyes. Jack traced the chain and found that it led back to his own chest. It was barely visible, only as solid as a beam of light shining through dusty air.
            Jack lifted his hand to the ethereal chain, and to his shock, he could feel it. He pulled at it, and there was a slight tug on his chest. He gripped harder on the chain and then yanked at it. In a flash of light, the chain broke apart, evaporating.
            “Huh, Jack?” She arose, her eyes closed and her voice lazy. “Did you just tap me on the back?”
            “No, Tessa, it’s nothing.”
            Jack looked at her again. Their chain was broken, but he could see another one, this coming out of the front of her chest, leading out through the wall and far away to the north.
            Tessa swiftly drifted back to sleep. Jack took off his wet clothes and sat on the bed in just his boxers. He did not sleep that night, as his mind was racing with invisible chains and the rainy city.
            And the image of Tessa, lying dead where she was now sleeping.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Block in the Fire

            Lisenrush had killed a wild snow deer. They had been lucky to come across one. Even as far out as Far Watch, the wild animals had mostly moved away to avoid the noisy and dangerous humans. Lisenrush skinned the animal with her combat knife and the two of them worked together to turn the grey hide with its white spots into makeshift shoes. They were not, by any stretch of the imagination, built to last, but it meant that the ground would not freeze Ana’s toes off. The rest of the hide Lisenrush turned into thick cloaks. Ana was grateful for the warmth, even if the hide began to smell a bit after the first day.
            Far Watch was a day’s drive with a proper vehicle, and if one was willing to use the roads, but Lisenrush insisted that they stay in the forest.
            “We don’t know if they’ll be looking for us,” she said.
            Ana was pretty certain that the faceless men would be able to follow them on the road or through the forest with equal ease, but Lisenrush insisted, and Ana was not willing to stray too far from the Ranger-Captain.
            There was still a lot of snow in the forest, and the trees were only just barely beginning to recover their foliage. The entire forest seemed muted, and even the sounds that she and Lisenrush were making seemed to whisper.
            Her feet squished in the make-shift moccasins. Lisenrush had done her best to scrape the fat from the hide, but it had not been a perfect job. Ultimately, Ana consoled herself by noting that the fat would help insulate her feet.
            Ana had heard about the wilderness training that the rangers went through, but she was still impressed with Lisenrush’s comfort in the woods. Ana considered herself a city girl, even if Port O’James was a little too small to be considered a true city. She had never spent much time in the wild, unless one counted the sea, though she had not gone out on boats much since her brother died.
            Therefore, for the time being, Ana felt utterly useless. She could handle herself on the streets – even in the dangerous Darkmoor district near the southern docks – but she had nearly scared the snow deer away when Lisenrush first saw it, and she doubted she would have even seen the beast if it had not been for Lisenrush, who had pointed it out to her.
            Ana sniffed the air. There was a sharp bite in it that she realized, after about five seconds, was smoke. She informed Lisenrush.
            “Yes, I smelled it too.”
            “We’re not near anyone’s cabin, are we?”
            Carefully, they stalked in the direction of the scent. Ana let Lisenrush take the lead, attempting to imitate the careful steps that she took, the way that she seemed to be aware of every stray twig or branch that lay in her path. Ana could occasionally hear the sickening crack of a twig or the crunch of snow under her feet, quiet but not silent. Still, if there were any people to be alarmed, they did not make themselves known.
            They came to a small clearing – or perhaps not so much a clearing as a gap between two trees, only about six feet across. There was a haphazard circle of stones with a fire that had mostly burnt out. The larger pieces of wood were mostly white ash, and a faint flame leapt up occasionally. In the center of the fire pit, there was a strange object. It was white, or perhaps a light grey. The object was rectangular, about one and a half feet long.
            Lisenrush glanced at it, but seemed dismissive. Ana took a closer look. “Look at this,” she said. “There’s no soot.”
            Lisenrush scanned the area and then allowed her attention to turn to the block. “You’re right. That’s odd.” The block was totally clean, even though the stones that formed the circle were blackened.
            Ana took a wet stick from the ground and pushed some of the smoldering wood away from the block. She then tapped the block to check its temperature. Rather than hot, the block seemed to have no temperature at all. Her finger felt numb, but not from cold.
            “Don’t touch it,” said Ana. Lisenrush did not seem to be in danger of doing so.
            Ana stood up again and circled around it. From their original angle, the block seemed perfectly uniform, and perfectly squared. However, when looking at the other end of it, she noticed that there were faint circles of a somewhat purplish hue. They were almost like the remnants of scribbles on paper after they had been erased.
            Looking closer, she began to see more details, hard to discern at first due to the dim light. The circles were like the ends of tubes, and here there was a sheared-off white circle, and some reddish-grey fibers, and from this end of the block, there was a rancid smell.
            “It’s an arm,” she said. The moment she said it out loud, she was certain. The length was right, the width, relatively speaking, was a bit too much, but within the right order of magnitude, certainly.
            “An arm?” Lisenrush looked at Ana’s end of the thing. “What makes you say that?”
            Ana pointed to the faint remnants of the muscle, bone, connective tissue, and circulatory tubing. “That’s about what you’d expect to see from a cross-section of a severed arm.”
            Lisenrush looked closer at the square of white. “No it isn’t.”
            “Not a normal arm, of course. This thing isn’t an arm anymore, but it used to be.”
            “And what is it now?”
            “It’s turning into nothing.”
            The Ranger-Captain stood up again. “Well, that’s an interesting theory.”
            “Let me see the back of your neck,” said Ana.
            Lisenrush regarded her skeptically.
            “When I was in my cell, and you and your people were starting to feel strange, I saw that there was… a kind of patch on your neck. I want to see if it’s still there.”
            Lisenrush stepped away quickly. “You saw what?” Ana noted that the rifle was a little higher in her grip now, a little closer to being held in a firing position.
            “I want to check it. It’s very small, less than a coin.”
            “You never mentioned this before.”
            “I forgot it was there,” said Ana. “For whatever reason, I haven’t seen it since then.”
            It’s because she’s very careful not to turn her back on you, Ana realized. In fact, thinking back, that for their entire trek, Lisenrush had put Ana in front of her. Lisenrush always carried the gun. She still doesn’t trust you.
            Ana did her best to keep this realization undetectable. “Just lift up your hair a bit and I’ll take a look.”
            Lisenrush stepped back with one foot. Ana was careful not to advance on her, not yet. In some ways, it was like approaching the snow deer. But Ana had no interest in killing Lisenrush, and was, in fact, ill-equipped.
            Slowly, slowly, Lisenrush lifted her hair out of the way and turned just far enough for Ana to look. Ana could tell that every muscle in Lisenrush’s body was tense, ready to spring into action should the undead fiend decide this was the time to strike.
            The patch was still there. The hair was simply gone in that little misshapen area, and the skin beneath had lost most of its texture and color. It was dead, but not in an interesting way. There was no decay, and no sign of injury or disease, just stillness.
            “Yes, it’s still there. You don’t feel anything strange at the back of your neck?”
            The Ranger Captain turned back to face her again. “No.”
            Ana looked back, her face contorted with concern. “Well, the good news is that it’s not any bigger than it was.”
            “But it’s still there.”
            “Yes, that was the bad news.”
            Lisenrush grunted as she slung the rifle on her shoulder. “I’ll have it checked out after we get to town.”
            Ana nodded. She doubted the doctors would have much to say about it. Ana stepped forward to continue on their path, allowing Lisenrush to walk behind her, but she did so with growing unease. Lisenrush may have still feared her as a dangerous draugr, but Ana wondered if it was not she who should be worried.
            Is this how it started with Vymer?

            There was a large boulder that stood in the forest, almost a small hill. In the dense trees and camouflaged by the snow, it was easy to go quite near it without seeing it.
            It was upon this boulder that the dead man stood. He was clad in iron armor, dark and utilitarian, except for a few stray etchings in symbols of skulls and words in one of the secret languages.
            The draugr looked down upon the two women marching across the woods through his dead, too-wet eyes. The eyes were clouded, but beyond that grey-white clouding was a pale blue glow like ice on the ocean. His nose had worn away, and now looked like a pair of slits in the middle of his face. Likewise, the skin on his cheeks had decayed to the point that yellowed bone stuck out.
            In his right hand – or rather a claw, as all the flesh on that hand had long-since rotted away – he held a great sword. Like the armor, the sword had spots of rust, and the blows and strikes of countless battles had left their mark.
            There was no left hand to help hold the sword. From the shoulder, there were a mere five inches before the flesh hardened and blended into the iron armor above, fusing together and turning rectangular. On the sheared edge, where the arm truly ended, only the faint ghost of what it had once been remained visible. Beyond, the rest of the arm stood within that small fire, refusing to burn.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)